My neurodivergent travel patterns

I realized a long time ago that I don’t travel like a lot of people I know. When they list off their 14 European cities in 10 days itineraries, I have a panic attack. When they talk about how many sights they saw on a week-long trip to the US east coast, I get dizzy. When they enumerate their hikes, rafting trips, and mule-rides from their long weekend at the Grand Canyon, I pass out. This sort of traveling—travel as collecting sights or experiences—stresses me out.

What I’ve realized that I tend to do instead is to stay in one place longer. I also tend to work when I’m there. From my early adulthood as an archaeologist in Mexico, Yugoslavia, France, and Wales, up to now, I look for opportunities to be in a new place for a longer time, or to revisit a familiar place. This has also been my kid’s preference. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, for a while now, but things took on a new light since last spring, when we were both diagnosed with ADHD and began exploring our neurodivergence. We’ve also learned that we are both autistic (as my father likely was, too), so part of my personal journey over the last six months has been figuring out how this combination has affected my life up to now.

Turns out it’s a pretty common combination, and finding out I’m neurodivergent in my mid-50s is also pretty common, especially among women, who are often diagnosed (professionally or self) when their children are. Prior to getting assessed by an educational psychologist, Emerson and I talked about ADHD quite a bit. I read several books, and in reading those books had quite a few “aha!” moments about myself. So many things suddenly made sense. This, it turns out, is quite common for mothers especially. Girls and women tend to be underdiagnosed for ADHD (and autism, and a lot of other things) because the research and diagnostic criteria have tended to favor boys/men. As a result, understanding of these conditions has favored recognition in boys over girls, and research into nonbinary, transgender, and gender nonconforming presentations is even more limited. (I’ve learned a lot about this and could probably write my own book, if I had the inclination, but there are already so many good ones; I’ll include a brief list at the end of this post.)

A similar process happened with autism, around the same time. At the moment, we are both self-diagnosed, but I’m getting Emerson re-evaluated by a different psychologist when we go back to the US for the summer, and we’ll hopefully return to Mongolia with a revised diagnosis that we can use to get better accommodations at Emerson’s school. For me, it’s not as important, because I’m not likely to get workplace accommodations, and there’s so little in the way of support for autistic adults, anyway. (Also, self-diagnosis is recognized by the autistic community, as I’ve learned, because so many autistic people go undiagnosed by professionals. It’s difficult to get a diagnosis as an adult, for a variety of reasons.)

So, what does this have to do with travel?

After I had Emerson, I was counting the weeks/months/years before I could begin traveling with them. First, it was just driving out to my parents’ house in Palm Desert, about two hours away from my apartment in San Diego. My mother was disabled, and my father didn’t feel up to making the drive to visit us, so they met their grandchild on Skype before they met in person, when Emerson was about two months old. When Emerson was five months old, I brought them to Vancouver for a conference (that was another form of travel I engaged in during my graduate student and early professional years). It was their first airline flight and international trip. We subsequently attended conferences in Montreal, Rotterdam, and New York City. Bringing a child along required a lot of extra planning and expense, but I was still trying for an academic career at the time and didn’t feel like I had much choice.

The Rotterdam conference (late summer of 2008) was an excuse for us to travel to Denmark and then Switzerland to visit friends and family, about five weeks total. In hindsight, and at the time, it seems completely absurd, but I had not been able to travel much since my PhD fieldwork in 2003-2004, and I hadn’t been to Switzerland since 1999, so I had a lot of pent-up wanderlust. My mother was still alive when we made that first trip in 2008, but after she died, we started a trend of traveling to Switzerland every two or three years, as I’d done when I was a child. Part of it was just my wanting to feel the connection with my parents, and to develop Emerson’s relationship with our Swiss family. But as time went on, I started to notice some things that I now understand much better and wish I’d understood then.

When they were young, up until about age 6, Emerson was prone to what I then considered to be temper tantrums. And they tended to happen a fair amount when we were traveling, especially when we changed from one location to the next. I tended to rent places for longer periods of time to use as a “home base” on our trips, so we weren’t hopping from one hotel or B&B to the next constantly, which would have been too much for me as a solo parent with a young child, anyway. We would stay in one place for a week or two, and then go to another place and stay there. And we tended to visit the same places and get into “routines.” For example, we would visit Zurich on our trips to Switzerland because I have a cousin and good friends there. The first couple of times I was able to stay with our friends, but as Emerson got older, it was less convenient, so I would rent a place with a kitchenette instead. Once we were able to house sit for our friends and look after their pet hamsters, which was an ideal arrangement (though we didn’t get to spend much time with our friends on that trip). And while we were in Zurich, we would visit some of the same places, like the University of Zurich’s Zoological Museum, which became like familiar friends as well.

So, back to the “temper tantrums,” which I now understand were actually autistic meltdowns brought on by sensory overload and changes in routine.

Whoa.

Looking at them in that light has changed how I think about and talk about Emerson’s childhood. We had a few doozies, mainly when we traveled, and when we returned home. I wish I could say I dealt with them well, but I didn’t always, and sometimes I lost it, too. When other people were around, it was especially stressful. Not strangers, but the people we were visiting, who often weren’t used to young children and especially neurodivergent children. If only I’d known at the time.

But I noticed that Emerson was excited about traveling anyway, though they really liked to visit to the same places, especially. We got into travel routines, with just enough new places to keep things interesting for me, and just enough familiar places to make Emerson happy. Sometimes we would go to the same place over and over (like Yosemite for the long Memorial Day weekend and Emerson’s birthday, or Palm Desert for the weekend even after my parents died and I sold their house) and even do exactly the same things while we were there. And now that I look at this pattern and reflect on my lifelong travel habits, I’ve started to think about them in a new way.

I always saw my inclination to stay and work in other countries, especially, as a combination of seeing the world but also contributing to it in different ways. I like to go where I’m useful and where I can do things that help people. I always saw conventional tourism, with its roots in Western colonialism, as an exploitative and potentially destructive practice, though that hasn’t stopped me from being a tourist from time to time. (We humans are a contradictory lot, eh?) In hindsight, though, I can also see my traveling life as my ADHD brain’s need for stimulation and new experiences accommodating my autistic brain’s need for routine and continuity. No matter where in the world I went, whether it was Cairo or Addis Ababa or Asahikawa or Ulaanbaatar, I always established a routine life as a basis for exploring new opportunities. Even shorter trips of weeks or months were similar.

For example, our lives here in Mongolia are in many ways similar to what our lives were in California, particularly in relation to the foods we eat (e.g. my oatmeal for breakfast, which I’ve eaten for decades now), our daily routines, and our activities. I moved quickly to establish our lives here once we got back (and knowing what to expect was helpful for that). It’s not a resistance to “going native” or adapting to our new environment. It’s a need for some kind of foundational routine and home base from which we can encounter new things. Now, especially, art has become important for Emerson, so one of the first things I did after we got established here was to look for art classes for them outside of school (where they only have art once or twice a week, and they’re often not actually doing art). We discovered the Mongol Art Gallery, a 25-minute walk across the park from us, and art classes there became part of our weekly routine.

I’ve also noticed how much disruptions of our routine, or the necessity of new routines, affects us. Emerson has had to start physical therapy for scoliosis three times a week now, at a location that’s not very close to our apartment, so we are having to figure out how to work that and daily exercises into our routine, especially now that school has started up again after their three-week winter break. Once we get used to it, it will be fine, but for now it’s strangely upsetting.

But now I have the tools to understand why this is the case, and why I need such a mixture of the new and the familiar in my life. I’m genuinely happy to not be living in the US anymore. Honestly, I wish I could have done this long ago. I like the feeling of rootlessness that selling the house gave me, but I also recognize a feeling of loss, which Emerson shares. And for better or worse, we’re going to have to go back to San Diego already for the coming summer, and Emerson may well go back to the US for college. As to whether I’ll live there again or not, I really can’t say. I hope not, because there are so many other places I’d rather be (maybe a bit warmer than Ulaanbaatar next), but one thing we talk about is going back for a gap year before they go to college to get everything sorted out in relation to their AHDH and autism.

The pandemic has no doubt been a hard experience for everyone. There has been untold suffering around the world. It seems endless. But for us, it also brought new self-awareness, opportunities to reflect on and re-evaluate our lives. We are both the same and fundamentally different from our pre-pandemic selves, if only because we know ourselves better. And we are lucky that so far, this has been a good thing.

At the Mongol Art Gallery in front of Emerson’s drawing

As promised, some books on girls/women with ADHD or autism. Some are very good and some are less good. Of the ones about autism, some see autism as a deficit to be overcome, while others see autism as who we are (I fall in the latter camp). But I learned something from all of them. We have also been learning from many YouTube channels (including How to ADHD and Yo Samdy Sam), as well as social media accounts. There are excellent resources out there.

ADHD & Women (2020) by Suzanne Byrd.

But you don’t look autistic at all (2020) by Bianca Toeps.

Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You (2020) by Jenara Nerenberg.

Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life (2018) by Laura James.

Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asberger’s Syndrome (1999) by Liane Holliday Willey.

A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD: Embrace Neurodiversity, Live Boldly, and Break Through Barriers (2019) by Sari Solden and Michelle Frank.

Understanding ADHD in Girls and Women (2021), edited by Joanne Steer.

Understanding Girls with ADHD: How they feel and why they do what they do (2018) by Kathleen Nadeau, Patricia Quinn, and Ellen Littman.

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age (2015)  by Sarah Hendrickx.

Women from Another Planet? Our lives in the universe of autism (2015) edited by Jean Kearns Miller.

2 thoughts on “My neurodivergent travel patterns

    1. Thank you, Anne! I went back and forth about going public with my autism (Emerson has been). I was worried about the stigma, I guess. ADHD is more accepted, but people don’t understand autism well yet. I decided in the end that it was worth it to be able to talk about it. It’s not like I’ll lose my job or have a hard time finding another one, which is what happens to some people.

      Like

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